Matt Renzi’s “The Cave”

by E. "Doc" Smith on March 10, 2006

Local tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Matt Renzi is one the most prolific musicians on the scene, and his latest album, “The Cave”, is another fine effort. Like many other listeners, I had not been much of a fan of the “sax-bass-drums” trio concept, however after spending time with Seattle’s great trio known as “Critters Buggin'”, with the legendary “Skerrik” on saxophone, and the former rhythm section of Edie Brickell’s New Bohemians, old friends, Brad Houser on bass and Matt Chamberlain on drums, I became a convert.

Renzi’s pairing with bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Russell Meissner, and their beautiful work on The Cave, can most definitely be added to that ever growing concept.

After listening to The Cave, and reading a multitude of stellar reviews, I found myself turning once again to the words of All About Jazz senior editor, Canadian John Kelman, who wrote, “While not an uncommon format, the saxophone trio is often a more challenging context than piano or guitar-led groups. Without the benefit of a chordal instrument, a saxophone/bass/drums trio can feel like a quartet minus one, as opposed to a complete entity unto itself.

Not so with this group led by saxophonist/clarinetist Matt Renzi, a San Francisco native who has spent the past few years living in a variety of locations—Japan, New York, India, and Italy. His trio with bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Russell Meissner did a couple of tours before recording The Cave, developing a vocabulary that capitalizes on the potential harmonic freedom of the chordless trio, as well as its inherent spaciousness. Renzi’s rich sense of melody and Ambrosio’s ability to provide harmony and/or counterpoint to Renzi, as well as serve as rhythmic anchor with Meissner, act as constant reminders that understated suggestion can often be more powerful than overt declaration.

Renzi’s trio takes as precedent Dave Holland’s classic Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1973)—with Holland’s pastoral title track feeling like a not-so-distant cousin to Renzi’s “Poison Ivy,” which opens The Cave. But Renzi has a gentler touch, with none of the harsher qualities that woodwind multi-instrumentalists Anthony Braxton or Sam Rivers demonstrated on Holland’s session. Similarly, while Ambrosio possesses an unerring sense of groove that’s similar to Holland’s, this trio date demands that he assume a more dominant harmonic role much of the time. And while this trio’s idea of freedom never reaches the kind of jagged extremes found on Conference of the Birds, it comes from a similar space, where strong compositions acts as jumping-off points for deeper exploration.

Renzi’s writing is consistently thematic, but the chemistry he shares with Ambrosio and Meissner is what allows the material to be rooted in form yet so open to free play. Miessner is as comfortable in a textural role on the rubato “The Rice Shed” as he is a more straightforward rhythmic one on the delicately insistent “In Circles.” Ambrosio may show considerable contrapuntal intuition on the three-part closer, “Three Stories,” but he balances that with a more definitive groove on both the uptempo “Faces and Places” and the hypnotic, Indian-inflected “To the Cave,” which feels like a calmer version of John Zorn’s Masada Quartet.

Despite a free and responsive style that finds serendipitous connections with Ambrosio and Meissner, Renzi’s openmindedness is rooted in a lyrical approach. Almost despite his command of extended techniques—tonguing the reed to create pointed percussive sounds and making restrained use of multiphonics—he remains a highly approachable player who favours smooth surfaces over hard edges. His approach is surprisingly vocal—or perhaps not, considering that he’s studied South Indian vocal music with R.A. Ramamani.

The Cave proves it’s possible to be free without being abstruse, open to any possibility while remaining focused. A fine disc from a group which also puts to rest any suggestions that saxophone trios are inherently missing something.”

I am speechless after reading Kelman’s words, his observations once again ring true, and deserved to be repeated here. Growing up on the east coast, I had always heard that San Francisco was home to two distinct musical phenomena, the music of the Grateful Dead, and incredibly gifted saxophonists. Matt Renzi and his trio proves the latter continues to be true.

E. “Doc” Smith is a musician and recording engineer who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Madonna, Warren Zevon, Mickey Hart, Jimmy Cliff, Paul McCandless, Jack DeJohnette and Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, among others. He is also the inventor of the musical instrument, the Drummstick. He can be reached at

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